Someone recently asked me what I do when I’m feeling super stressed and need a bit of a break. I immediately rattled off my toolkit: meditation, deep breathing, a walk, laying on the floor with my cat, taking a shower, rearranging the art in my living room.
“All of those are things you do alone,” this person responded.
While a walk can be done with another person, in my case, it isn’t. Neither is meditation, the manicure I give myself while watching Orange is the New Black, or my photo-sorting session on a Thursday evening.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these self-care strategies. In fact, I’m pretty damn proud of myself for adopting so many of them. Years ago, I “relaxed” primarily by doing activities that fed my compulsions. It took a long time to accept and embrace the idea that chill time is necessary time, and that I’m a better woman when I’m taking time for myself.
The Clare of seven years ago would have laughed at the idea of reading for pleasure or treating myself to a new bottle of lotion on a whim.
But my self-care toolkit is missing a social component. Sure, I make plans with friends for dinner, a manicure, a trip to Target, but those aren’t my go-tos when work stresses me out. I’m actually less likely to seek out sociability when I’m feeling anxious or sad or generally bummed, and I know I’m not alone in that.
Why do we do this? For many of us, the idea of being vulnerable is really scary. We fear looking weak, needy or unhinged. We don’t want to overwhelm our friends or family with our struggles, so we look to the cat or the couch to comfort us. These comforts, to be sure, are far better than using eating disorder behaviors, but they leave out an important part of recovery: Connection.
You may be thinking now, “but I recharge by being alone.” So do I. I get it. But I also know that recharging solo can very easily become autopilot and reaching out to friends can start to feel uncomfortable. It’s a delicate balance, and I cannot tell you what will work for you. I can, however, share some of the ways in which I’m now rethinking my approach to stress reduction and self-care:
- When I’m feeling stressed, I don’t immediately pull out my yoga mat or turn on a favorite podcast. Instead, I ask myself what I need, what I want. Do I want to text a friend and grab a coffee? Do I want to call my dad? Do I want to find a cool lecture or reading for tonight? If any of these things jump out at me, I send the text, make the call or pull up the directions to the event. If I’m physically tired or just need to be alone with my thoughts or my paint set, I let myself stay home, cozy pajamas and all.
- If it turns out I want to connect with other people, I allow myself to just focus on the present, if that’s what feels right. I don’t force myself to talk about what’s bugging me. I ask questions, I engage with the world around me. I get curious. I get out of myself. Sometimes, just shaking off your troubles for a couple hours can be as helpful as a night of journaling.
- I consider engaging with strangers to be a form of social self-care. Sometimes striking up a conversation with a bookstore clerk is just as helpful as a Skype session with your sister. Talking about books can be another way of taking you outside yourself, moving the focus away from your stressors for a while. I recently asked a clerk which Joan Didion book she’d recommend, and we ended up chatting about San Francisco in the 70s. With my new copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem under my arm, I left the bookstore feeling less stressed and less alone.
- What begins as a solo self-care strategy can morph into a social one. As longtime hip-hop dancer, I used to dance alone in my living room. Or my shower. Or my laundry room. Once I got over the idea that in order to dance in public I had to be “the best,” I started to go to dance classes. Over the past three years, I’ve come to regard these classes not as a place to “zone out” with the music but a space to connect with the men and women I now consider my friends. I look forward to seeing them just as much as I look forward to new choreography. Dance has become my go-to social self-care.
- Social self-care gets easier. It might have initially been hard for you to embrace a late-night bubble bath or a Saturday afternoon nap, but once these self-care strategies became part of your routine, you grow more comfortable with them. You may look forward to them now. The same thing can happen with social self-care.
The more you engage with the world outside as a means of taking care of yourself, the more you will come to appreciate the value of social self-care.
There is no one way to take care of ourselves. What feels good one day might not feel so great the next. With this in mind, I am making a concerted effort to diversify my self-care routine, and I’d love to hear how you’re incorporating all sorts of self-care into your life!